Best of 2010: Classical music

PRIZE EFFORT: Hilary Hahn.
PRIZE EFFORT: Hilary Hahn. (Mathias Bothor)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010

The major record labels are struggling notably, and sales are sinking. But this has opened up a path for so many small labels and self-produced discs there's no way to listen to them all. The result might not be making a lot of money, but it's a boon for listeners: There were dozens of worthy contenders for the year's-best title. The following 10 CDs would ease a sojourn on any desert island.

"Jeremy Denk Plays Ives" [Think Denk Media]. Denk's piano playing mingles urbanity with unabashed beauty. The combination, coupled with an engaging intelligence, has brought him into the limelight in the past couple of years, and it sheds plenty of light on Charles Ives, who's become something of a calling card. This self-produced CD illuminates through thoughtful liner notes and playing that removes the spines from this usually thorny composer, making him less off-putting than downright seductive.

"Die Zauberflote" [Harmonia Mundi, three CDs]. In this much-awaited continuation of his Mozart cycle, Rene Jacobs approaches the famous singspiel "The Magic Flute" as if it were a radio play, including all the spoken dialogue, often with musical commentary from the keyboard, and sound effects from a veritable battery of percussion. It certainly shakes the piece out of the quasi-pantomime territory it so often inhabits (though it's even better if you know German); the young cast offers light, conversational, capable singing; and the orchestra (the Akademie fuer Alte Musik Berlin) is terrific.

Benjamin Britten, "Songs & Proverbs of William Blake." Gerald Finley and Julius Drake [Hyperion]. The superb baritone Finley's recital at Vocal Arts DC in March made me want to hear a lot more of him. Happily, he gave me plenty of opportunity by releasing two solo CDs this year: a compilation of opera arias and this insightful recording of Britten works early and late, enhanced by his frequent accompanist Drake.

"Hilary Hahn Plays Higdon and Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos" [Deutsche Grammophon]. This year's Pulitzer Prize-winning composition was documented in a fine recording by the violinist for whom it was written. Jennifer Higdon's music is energetic and attractive, with undeniable crowd appeal and finger-twisting virtuosity; and it's paired with a probing reading of the Tchaikovsky concerto that's enhanced by the conducting of up-and-comer Vasily Petrenko.

Tchaikovsky, "The Three Piano Concertos." Stephen Hough; Osmo Vanska, Minnesota Orchestra [Hyperion]. More Tchaikovsky. Hyperion's marvelous "Romantic Piano Concerto" series, which offers excellent performances of scholarly editions of more- and less-known works, marked its 50th release with a bang: the biggest romantic concerto in the repertory, paired with its less-known siblings, played by an artist who mines the nuance (yes, nuance) of the scores, supported by one of America's best orchestra-conductor teams.

"Katrina Ballads" [New Amsterdam Records]. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the young composer Ted Hearne began writing a musical response, a compilation of news accounts, eyewitness quotes and editorials that mingles American musical vernaculars from jazz to rock to the avant-garde in an impassioned oratorio, a kind of operatic journalism, uneven but exciting, that appeared on CD for the fifth anniversary of the disaster.

Mahler, Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection." Klaus Tennstedt, London Philharmonic Orchestra [LPO]. A live recording (startlingly good in quality) of a 1989 concert shows the idiosyncratic intensity this late, great conductor brought to Mahler. Tennstedt leaves lots of room around his phrases and delivers each with a slightly different inflection, tugging at tempos in a distinctly un-contemporary fashion, holding out silences so your hair stands on end when the music resumes, and offering each passage as if it were being torn, with effort, from his heart.

Brooklyn Rider, "Dominant Curve" [In a Circle Records]. Call it alt-classical or simply progressive: This recording illustrates how musicians today move through many stylistic worlds on a single, sensible trip. This crack quartet is composed of alums of the Silk Road Ensemble; their crisp vital reading of the Debussy quartet is at the heart of a recording exploring Eastern influences in music by everyone from the Japan-born Kojiro Umezaki to John Cage.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, "Ravel, Debussy, Massenet." Yan Pascal Tortelier, BBC Symphony Orchestra [Chandos]. Not everyone appreciates Debussy's early piano-concerto-like "Fantasie," but Bavouzet does, and he and Tortelier make an eminently convincing case for it on this strong and very French disk, which traces a jazz influence from Debussy through swinging performances of both Ravel concertos. Boulez and Aimard offered another fine (and French) recording of them this year, but this SACD has more bang (and verve) for the buck.

James Levine, "Celebrating 40 Years at the Met." DVD box set: 12 operas, 21 DVDs; CD box set: 11 operas, 32 CDs [PolyGram]. It's not a single release; it's a chapter of opera history, documenting the longest-tenured director of the Metropolitan Opera in a generous cornucopia of his performances starting in 1978 and including some of his great signature works (like Berg's "Lulu" and "Wozzeck," contrasted in 1980 and 2001). The DVD set, in particular, not only captures some memorable performances ("Bartered Bride" with Stratas, Gedda and Vickers?) but serves as a reminder that there were brilliant singing actors at the Met long before the current crop: Renata Scotto can work a camera close-up (in "Don Carlo") as well as anyone singing today.


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